The concept of sacrifice is a fundamental basis of almost every religion. However, its manifestation in the form of human sacrifice is both more controversial and, as a result, rarely studied by anthropologists today. As one scholar observes: "The modern social anthropologist does not best endear himself to the elite of the Third World by an obsessive interest in how great-grandfather shrunk the heads he hunted or in the quality of the wood needed to burn great-grandmother alive" (Davies, 1981, p.13).
While one may question the sense of humour evident here - and even its implication of a racist subtext - it must be acknowledged that the role of human sacrifice in the history of religious practices is seldom addressed.
There exists, in general, two analytical approaches to the practice of human sacrifice: one seeing it as an analogue to cannibalism, and a means of the community ensuring a supply of animal protein, while the other perceives it as a cultural construct fostered by a violent society. This essay will argue, through an examination of the role of human sacrifice in the religious practices of the Aztec civilization, that human sacrifice should be interpreted primarily as a cultural activity that is firmly integrated into the signification and value system of the community as a whole.
Human Sacrifice (a) - Theory
To individuals operating within a modern, Western paradigm,
the concept of human sacrifice is fundamentally repugnant. It may be this, more than any other factor, that accounts for the limited number of anthropological studies of the incidence of human sacrifice in the history of human religious practices. However, violence to the human body has historically been an integral part of religious practices, whether it be mass suicides, as in India; prolonged torture, as in Oceania, North America and Europe; ritualized cannibalism, as in Fiji; people being buried alive, as in ancient Ur and South America; or the dead being... [continues]
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